Monday, October 26, 2009

a blind judge and a kind judge

I took the boys up to the PANE Hunt Test at Flaherty this past Sunday, and was able to run Momo in the Master Hunter stake before I started judging the Junior Hunter stake. As the title suggests, it wasn't pretty and I was genuinely a little surprised, but Momo successfully earned his second MH leg. I don't know if he just performed the skills that the other dog didn't much better (like the honor and the retrieve) and so the judges either overlooked or were feeling kind towards Mr. Creepy-feet-- but as soon as the test was over we started on launcher work with both boys. Two down, three to go.

Essentially, with both boys, I want them to a) stand off their birds further and b) have the birds teach them that once they have established point, any movement will trigger a flush. And a moving dog and a flushing bird means no shot, no retrieve, and no praise from Pop. And launcher work can also teach the dogs that movement after the flush is unacceptable. As the folks over at Steady with Style have pointed out, there can be several contexts a dog should understand that require him to stand still even in the absence, perhaps especially in the absence, of a verbal command. A bird that gets up in clear sight ahead of a dog, whether on point or not, is one of them.

My previous challenges with launchers were that I hadn't figured out a) the better ways to use them, b) the better ways to store them, and c) the better ways to lay them out in the training field. And so, in the past, the dogs would get too close because they couldn't easily scent what was in there and so any forward movement on their part would bring them too close to the launchers which might in turn be dangerous or frightening for them. However, if you have a good breeze, wide open cover, multiple birds, and a clear training plan... surprisingly, things can work quite well! My solutions were to a) keep all my launchers, bird bags, and some random wings in one big decoy bag together and to only handle them with my bird handling gloves on, b) to either stash a birdbag with some birds in a little further upwind from the trap, or c) set up multiple birds in one launcher, d) or set up duplicate launchers in one location, or e) use a combination of regular launchers and one of Brad Higgins's Remote Releasers.

Even with all this planning, you still need good flying birds. On the downside, Brad's remote releaser will not eject a bird into the stratosphere, but they are both wicked quiet and a great, safe way to ensure that your actual launcher has additional birds around it to create a nice pong for the dog. And, as we discovered, if the bird is pressured, it will get up and away like no slept or dizzied bird. Launchers, to my mind, still have a use -- but I am glad I invested in one of these, too. So, long and short, I think we're already starting to see the wheels turn in both of their brains as they recalibrate their behavior based on the bird... and not on me hooting and hollering.

*******

Momo is officially a woodcock dog. Last Thursday we hunted in both New York at Stewart and at Flaherty. We had hoped for pheasants in both places but only saw one rooster that Momo and I tracked and chased and flushed twice in waist-high weeds. I'm not sure if the lack of birds in NY is a side-effect from our governor's ill-informed, initial decision to close the Reynolds Gamebird Farm -- but I was a little surprised to only encounter a single bird. As for Flaherty, we were able to meet up with our friend, Rick from Marricks Vizslas, and his older dog, Baci. I've been fortunate to judge another of Rick's nice dogs, Latte, a couple of times. Sadly, there were several guys with howitzers out in the likely spots when we got there so we chose to train and chase whatever quail might still be left out in the woods.

In any case, while I actually foot flushed this bird accidentally, and somehow managed to hit it, Momo found it and retrieved it for me. I have been fascinated by this evolutionarily lost bird, a shore bird that somehow found itself marooned and now lives in transit from woody marsh to woody marsh. And as Hank, our favorite epicure at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, also discovered with its relative, the snipe, these things are small and beautiful with their peculiar shaped heads and long, graceful beaks. Unlike Hank, I don't have the patience or skill to prepare them with quite the same diligence. My criterion for hunting is that I will eat what I kill. But if a) it takes longer to prepare it than hunt it, and b) there's not enough of it to eat without some kind of elaborate recipe that defies the space-time continuum, I may not shoot at a woodcock again.

Now the grouse we took in Maine, however... I may try a variation on something I had at a nice Mexican restaurant the other night, although instead of huitlacoche I may stuff the breasts with shiitake mushrooms, then bread and fry them.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

endurance exemplified

Our dogs' fitness is rarely in question... because my wife, Meg, runs them twice a day for a minimum of 8miles each day. As much as it benefits them, Meg needs to run. On the other hand, I haven't had that compulsion in a long, long time. But Meg enjoys it and, to her credit, has completed a handful of marathons. So, feeling the need for a specific goal and having read such tomes as Dean Karnazes' Ultramarathon Man, she decided she'd like to try an 'ultra' -- and doing a trail run had to be easier on the joints than a regular road race, right?

Here's a short clip of the start beside lovely Shepherd Lake. Everyone happy, cheering, excited, and clearly in blatant denial. I don't know if this fellow finished, but he seemed to think it was going to be fun, too. (Sadly, as of Sunday evening, we have discovered that this fellow didn't.)

video

So she entered the inaugural Mountain Madness 50k. Bearing in mind that race promoters like to amp things up to sell their event, and New Jersey doesn't really have mountains, how hard could it be? 'Sick-o-saurus Rex' is the answer to that question. Here's Meg running down a typical trail on the way to Aid Station #4 at mile 17 or so. We were chatting with another runner who was accompanying his wife on her first 50km who said that he, after now having finished 6, was convinced this was the hardest one he'd ever done.

And so, approximately 9hrs 20mins after she started, my crazed wife crossed the finish line back at Shepherd Lake. And yes, as you can tell from the flash photograph, darkness was absolutely closing in. When I wrote this first, we believed she was the last person to finish. But now (Sunday evening), we have discovered that she was 66th of 70 folks who completed the course; 30 starters did not finish. Congratulations and thanks to Tim + Branwen Ellis and friends for sticking around the extra 20mins or so to cheer Meg's arrival.

In conclusion, Meg rocks.

********

On Tuesday, I opted to go up to the Northeastern Open Shooting Dog Championship up at Flaherty. Deb had decided to enter Yogurt in the competition because, as an hour-long championship stake, it would be a great training run for her in preparation for Nationals. Being an American Field-sanctioned event, Yogurt was the only non-Setter or Pointer in the race. This is to say that American Field events place an even higher premium on speed, stamina, and range and, with certain exceptions, don't require the dog to demonstrate a retrieve. And frankly, Pointers and Setters will generally on average display those characteristics to an even greater degree than the average 'other' pointing breed. So I was keen to see how a great vizsla would do against a field of long-tailed white dogs.

And the answer is... pretty darn good. Unlike the AKC, there is often prize money given out both to overall champions and to the best dogs on each day. Yogurt finished 3rd on Tuesday, just missing the money, and according to the judges 11th overall for the championship. Yogurt was probably helped by having Sherry Ray Ebert as one of the judges, simply because Sherry has handled and judged other continental breeds and understands that a vizsla's style is no less intent than the ramrod tail of a Pointer or Setter.

I have to admit, though, that while I thought Yogurt had run well, I hadn't seen any of the white dogs put up a performance that was light years beyond hers. Until the final brace of the day. I feel genuinely blessed to not only have seen Mike Tracy and Luke Eisenhart handle those dogs, but to have seen the race that Lawless Lady and Erin's Backstreet Affair laid down. And contrary to the stereotype that perhaps AKC-folks perpetuate these were dogs that ranged hard and far and still had a handle on them. And just stood their birds like it was perhaps the only other thing they knew how to do. Which it might be, but holy mackerel! watching those dogs go through that routine 10 times each during the hour and still finish with gas in the tank was wicked impressive. The final picture is of Lady with her owner, Jane Donze, and handler, Mike Tracy and scout, Alex Smith. This picture, though, is from her win at the Spruce Brook Bird Dog Trial this spring.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

chasing pah'tridges

First of all, congratulations to Jane at The Literary Horse for being the 20,000th visitor to The Regal Vizsla. Jane's blog constantly reminds me not to take all this horse business too seriously.

It's been a busy couple of weeks or so at work and, after waffling like Brett Favre for several weeks, decided I needed to get out of Dodge and go chase grouse sooner rather than later. And so while I apologize for not convening the Momo + Jozsi's Second Annual Invitational Grousehunt, my general psychic state couldn't deal with hanging around in New York City any longer.

Over the weekend, I did head up to Flaherty to run Momo in his next MH attempt at the Connecticut Valley Vizsla Club's Fall hunt test on the Saturday, judge JH on the Sunday, and in between hopefully scout for Yogurt at the PANE Field Trial which was being held on a different part of the grounds. The weather was horrible and Momo fell foul of a wet, running chukar and moved too much to mark it as it literally ran circles around him. The judges asked to see a second honor out of the other dog and so Momo found another bird and then made a 40yd+ blind retrieve. Didn't get him back in the game, but it was a nice bonus. Judging JH the next day was enjoyable, although scenting conditions were tough for the dogs and a number of dogs weren't able to find a qualifying bird until the final minute or so. I will probably write a subsequent post on JH handling because it was very interesting to see how folks dealt with their dogs seemingly not performing at their usual level.

We then jetted up to Oquossoc to visit with old friends from when we used to live up in downeast Maine. The two previous times I have hunted grouse up here, I've come in the first week of November -- and it was amazing to see all the fall colors ringing the hills and lake. We had heard various tales of the demise of the ruffed grouse in western Maine -- but happily found plenty of evidence to the contrary. My friend Dudley and I hunted separate spots in the same general location and the final box score for two days came out at 34 flushes (including one woodcock) with three grouse taken. And for the first time, too, we saw not one but three large ungulates like this young fellow out for a morning wander on the main road.

I had really wanted to bring the boys up here to let the wild birds teach them a lesson or two. The last two years I learned quickly that the November birds were skittish and took the bells off the boys to allow them to at least get feasibly close to their birds. My update on this hypothesis is that Maine grouse are skittish, period. Of those 34 flushes, perhaps a quarter were genuinely pointed by either dog; a fair number of flushes were merely heard as they blew off into the far-away in response to a dog cracking a branch or moving brush too quickly.

The challenge of course now became how to keep track of a moving dog in heavy undergrowth, especially if the dog has decided to point. I try to be really quiet in the woods -- and use a very gentle mouth whistle to alert the dog where I am. At one point, Momo had cut in to some evergreens and I could no longer see him, so I whistled him on... once, twice, and then a third time. He then barked and a grouse flushed with the noise. I felt terrible. We both learned our lesson the next day -- I whistled quietly, heard nothing, and decided to step gently toward where I'd last seen him. I stepped over a downed tree into what looked like moss, but cracked a good sized twig in the process. I was a good 10yds away from the pair of grouse that flushed in front of poor Momo, banking up and away through the mixed maple and pine trees.

The video clip below is what happens when you try to video a crazed two-year old trial dog minutes after he's had his first grouse shot for him. I had wanted to bring him up to Maine so that he would hopefully get a wild bird education and learn that he was the not the master predator he imagined he was. While I can't say that he ever fully established a point, he learned very quickly what he was looking for and got very adept at his stop-to-flush. And a dog standing still does get his first bird shot out of a tree if need be. Not glamorous. Not particularly sporting. But a huge stimulus for a young dog.


video

I would speculate that tales of the minimal number of grouse are being perpetuated by 'heater hunters,' the old-timers who like driving up forest roads and shooting birds from the window of their jeep. Nevertheless, as you can see, there's not a whole lot that's easy about hunting grouse in Maine -- and early season means more leaf cover for birds to fly behind. And while Tuesday was a beautiful day, Monday was a classic Maine fall day... if you don't like the weather, wait 15mins. As you can see, Momo and I had to hide under a tall fir for 15mins of hard, hard rain but soon after, he got on point just over the shoulder of a slope. I saw him point, but as soon as I walked in to him, a bird flushed and flew up and across me. And miraculously, I made a competent crossing shot. Incidentally, upon dissection, all three birds we took were primarily eating maple seeds -- both regular and the larger striped maple -- unlike the clover and ferns that they seem to prefer come November.

Momo's second bird can only be described as beautiful. I kept the fan -- and now that we are home, I can tell you that the feathers are a solid inch longer than those on from the grouse we took two years ago. And whether male or female, this bird also had a full complement of black collar feathers. Sadly for this bird, it flushed ahead of Momo's point as I hollered to Jozsi, flew into a tree, but then lifted off again as I was walking in and Jozsi was barrelling back. And Momo got to make another perfect retrieve. Here's a picture of two happy vizslas on a cool Maine afternoon... you can see that, in my optimism, I had put a Tracker collar on Jozsi so I could locate him in the unlikelihood that he could stand a point out of sight.

The birds had the final laugh, though. As we got within 50yds of the truck, walking down an overgrown timber path, Momo scooted right and peered over a berm to get scent. A bird flushed up over him and flew down the path directly in front of me. I fired both barrels and probably missed underneath both times. However good you feel about yourself, a grouse slaps you for even approaching hubris.

Here's to good friends, good dogs, and beautiful, wild birds.